Exploring Integration Pt. 3: Communication
Hello, and welcome back to the Exploring Integration series. In this series, we take a dive into vital aspects of integration in the world of automation. Part 3 will focus on communication – or perhaps more precisely miscommunication – in business, and how automation technology can be leveraged to solve communication miscues in organizations. The goal of Part 3 will be to provide actionable information for lead generation or account development by approaching will known industrial problems from a new angle.
People can get weird when discussing communication. The discussion ranges from communication as a joke major in college to communication being key to everything we ever do. Here, we will narrow the scope to the traditional understanding of communication: Moving something – particularly information – from one place to another.
It makes sense for integrators to consider communication between devices as a key part of an initial fact finding mission. We know machines need to talk to whatever is pulling in data – that’s a big part of the business. But what happens after the data is brought in? It needs to be communicated once more – this time to Users or functional tools – to have value and meaning for the organization.
Many integrators tend to excel at converting failures in the fist line of communication into business opportunities but struggle to 1) identify communications issues in the second level and 2) understand how to convert these communication failures into a problem solved by automation technology.
Importance of Notifications
To understand miscommunication on a large industrial scale, first consider communication miscues at an individual level. Missed meetings can be deal killers! Who hasn’t forgotten to check their calendar at some point and missed out on an opportunity that should have been in the bag? In fact, it’s a common enough mistake that email/calendar services like Gmail have made meeting alerts a standard feature.
Create an event in your cell phone’s calendar, and you’ll likely be prompted to select when you would like to receive the meeting notification – an alert of an alert! Text alerts signal that a new message has been sent, delivered, or read. We can reset a message’s ‘read’ status to remind ourselves to go back and check it later.
We take for granted the little alerts in our lives, so we don’t often think about how much work they do for us. Effectively communicating small things all the time directly translates to fewer big problems to solve later on. So where does that leave us in trying to identify business opportunities?
We already said Integrators tend to do well identifying communication errors in systems. One reason is, when two systems aren’t talking, they don’t work! This idea applies to business units as well.
Interdepartmental communication has been a big problem for business and remains largely unsolved. It’s not always easy to identify exactly where the issues exist. From the Integrator’s perspective though, we already know one key source of potential communication conflict: the data system.
Walking through a facility reveals all sorts of real world issues that are hard to see from the outside. Keep tabs on places where friction occurs, such as: Which departments clash most often, length of quality investigations (and which departments get investigated), which equipment people keep saying they would love to have replaced, or how tedious making reports can be. These little comments provide insight about where the system needs improvement – as well as where you may find the most support to enact change. Each of these relates to some key failure of communication.
Problems and Solutions
We’ve created a list of common example complaints, below. The list is not comprehensive, but it offers a opportunity to recontexualize complaints as issues an automation system can resolve.
Problem: Old, disfunctional equipment never gets replaced
Either the equipment is working, or it isn’t. That the question arises in the first place is evidence of miscommunication. Operators should not be put in a position to make judgement calls on machince performance, then also have that judgement questioned for lack of supporting data.
Automation Solution: Better First Order Metrics
Data driven decision making is valuable, but only if you have the right information. Start with the basics. The “Is it working” question gets overlooked all the time, to the frustration of operators all over the world. It’s important, and if you’re getting a disconnect between what operational staff is requesting then the path forward should be clear:
- If you don’t have it already, program a metric to detect how long a device is on or off.
- If it’s already there, communicate it better to the operators so they can provide better feedback regarding operational realities.
- Finally, if the system can’t produce a metric to identify when things have stopped working, then it’s time to find one that can.
Problem: Quality Control disrupts the ‘flow’ of operations
Quality Investigations tend to be viewed as ‘necessary evils’. The investigations seek out the flaws in operations, create intances of interdepartmental conflict, and take a long time to complete – making the other problems worse.
That doesn’t make QC sounds great. However, quality is a vital component of any process because it links directly back to the trust upholding business relationships. Quality Control is necessary – and the problems surrounding common perpectives about it are communication issues. Failure to communicate key process information is a failure of the automation system. Complaints about intrusive investigations are implicitly complaints about the automation system!
Automation Solution: Develop better feedback channels between departments
If problems occur in a process, it should be measurable in the system and it should be communicated directly to the department accountable for Quality Control. There are a few simple ways to develop effective communicaiton channels for QC.
- Integrate quality metrics into the automation system
- Bring QC into the automation process and create quality focused views or dashboards
- Everyone working with process information should be receiving information from the same source. In this case, the automation system should be the source.
- Create live views of quality metrics so problems may be addressed before the get to the customer!
- Developing a quality-based notification system saves the operations team from experiencing unnecessary investigations.
Just as with the emails and text notifications example from earlier, looping QC into the feedback channels early on can prevent big problems from developing later on. Quality is necessary to building trust – and it should be a matter of fact that QC is receiving relevant process information.
These types of metrics are easy to create and deploy with well implemented dashboard development strategies. Dashbaords aren’t limited in scope to any one department, either. Similar channels of communication can be developed between operations and reporting systems, decision makers, sales teams, and any other vital entities.
Communicating to an Audience
The general idea people have when they here ‘automation’ is one device communicating with another device. What we want to impress upon you is that this device-to-device communication is only a single aspect of the communication an automation system can facilitate.
As much as technology has improved, there are still significant deficits in how information is interpreted by digital systems. A large part of what an automation system does is defined by how operators interpret information.
Dashboarding is easily overlooked, because to many people Dashboards are just a thing to hold the valuable information you need. But informaiton becomes much less valuable if it is too difficult to find or understand. This information is also less valuable (perhaps even destructive) if it is going to the wrong place entirely or not getting there at all.
The Process of Communication in Automation Systems
To best understand how important good dashboards are, let’s quickly review how communication is occurring in an automation system from a 10,000 ft view. At the most basic level, communication in an automated system is comprised of two primary components:
- Sender: The source of data (usually a machine or system of some sort)
- Receiver: The interested entity receiving data
Automation occurs when communication is fed between the enitities in feedback loops. An ‘Automation System’, though hopefully does more than merely facilitate automated communication! We know that information sometimes isn’t what it appears to be, so we build in mechanisms for human intervention or interpretation.
Too often, we don’t think enough about exactly who ought to be interpretting what information. An operator, process engineer, or systems admin will be tasked with making sure the system is doing what it should – but they don’t have all the necessary information to understand what is important for every person in an organization.
Example: Quality Control
Quality Control often gets a bad reputation among Operations, because the job is inherently critical – always seeking out errors that have occured or could occur in the future. Our contention though, is every instance in which a Quality Control investigation occurs is an instance of communication failure regarding an automation system or system design.
Consider: Why isn’t the system displaying information directly to Quality Control?
Sure, QC may not need to know the same information Operations does, but that simply means they need a seperate Dashboard tailored to their own needs. If a Customer complains about a product, QC should be able to see the processes that occurred to create said product and immediately recognize where production deviated from expectations. If this is not the case, then either the system needs to be reoganized to communicate more effectively (like with a new Dashboard) or the system is inherentely inadequate for the organizations needs.
Business and Automation are Connected
Automation systems are not distinct from the entities in which they operate. They exist as a means of communicating vital informaion throughout operations. Connectivity focused systems such as OnPing bridge the gaps between groups of systems that need information.
Sometimes these systems are business departments or individuals within the organization that simply need more informaiton. By recognizing that these broader communication issues are an extenstion of the communicatory relationships that exist between devices, Integrators can more easily identify possible business opportunities. Once the problems are identified, we can start working on new solutions (or old ones), together.